After spending the last five years traveling across the world photographing how humans interact with water—from the massive new Xiluodu Dam in China, six times larger than the Hoover, to the Kumbh Mela festival in India, where 30 million people gather to bathe in the Ganges at the same time—Edward Burtynsky doesn’t take water for granted anymore. “I think about water every time I’m drinking it, or showering in it,” he says. “I’ve witnessed enough of what happens when scarcity hits.”
Watermark, the documentary that Burtynsky made with filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal, opens in U.S. theaters this Friday, following a book that came out last fall. Like the pair’s previous work, including the 2006 film Manufactured Landscapes, this isn’t the typical environmental documentary: There’s almost no narration or explanation of what’s happening, just stunning photography.
“I think our films have always tried to create a space to think about something in a different way, rather than telling you what to think,” says Baichwal. “Sometimes what ends up happening in didactic politics is people have a binary response: People either agree with you or don’t. And that’s the end of the conversation. Whereas this is a more collaborative act with the viewer, bringing the viewer in and allowing the viewer to make up their own mind about what they’re seeing.”
She points to the example of the 937-foot tall Chinese dam, which could alternately be seen as an environmental disaster or as an example of China’s push for greener alternatives to coal power. “There’s complexity, and we have to acknowledge the complexity,” she says.
Since water covers most of the Earth’s surface, the filmmakers had to carefully choose a handful of stories to tell. “It was like a design process—we opened with research and development of the idea of water and reduced it to 50 or 60 ideas that might resonate visually and conceptually,” Burtynsky says. “We had a large pool that we kept trimming and trimming until we got to the film.”
The story was stitched together over a year of sifting through footage in the editing room. We see irrigated farms in the southern U.S., filthy water in a tannery district in Bangladesh, fishing in the South China Sea, and the water show at the Bellagio in Vegas. There’s a clear sense of how much water is being squandered—or turned into toxic sludge—as people drain it for cities and agriculture and industry.
But the movie also shows pristine watersheds in Canada, something Burtynsky describes as “a place where you can still dip a cup into water, drink it, and not die.” And Baichwal explains that after the long process of filming, she actually ended up with some sense of hope.
"Something that surprised me was realizing how quickly the landscape can remediate itself when water is allowed to go back the way it wants to go," she says. She shares the example of the Colorado River Delta in Mexico, which the film shows has turned from 2 million acres of wetland into a desert. But when some runoff was accidentally released into one part of the Delta, wildlife almost immediately started coming back. Now, the U.S. and Mexican governments are planning to release more water into the area, which has been dry since 1960.
The filmmakers hope that seeing the film will help start a conversation about water. "It's a point of departure, an inflection point for discussing very important aspects of what we do as humans," Burtynsky says. "This is our habitat, and this is what we’re doing to it."
[Images: Courtesy of Edward Burtynsky]